Ten things I learned about America by leaving it, part two

5. People around the world don’t like America.

Generally speaking, Americans view themselves as the good guys, the cowboys in white hats, the superhero coming to the rescue. They are quite proud of their history, particularly America’s role in World War II and containing the Soviet Union afterwards. After leaving the U.S., I discovered the rest of the world does not share this positive opinion. I think most Americans know people in North Korea or Iran hate their country, for instance, but I would guess they don’t know how many people in allied countries dislike it, too.

I’ve met a significant number of Europeans who hate America for no discernible reason. Emotions are strange, and sometimes it is difficult to articulate them. (Why do people dislike the colour blue? Or broccoli? Or fluffy sweaters? These are some of the mysteries of the universe.) But a large number of people have very specific reasons why they dislike America. These range from business practices to foreign policy, from a national arrogance to a refusal to sacrifice for the global good.

4. American workaholic tendencies might have fewer benefits than they realise.

Americans tend to be proud at how hard they work. Perhaps this feeling is a descendent of the old Protestant work ethic. They look down their noses at the lazy Europeans who are always on strike or holiday while they demand more and more pay for less and less work.

There are obvious benefits of working long hours. Currently there is a movement across Europe to get people to work more across their entire lifespan: starting their careers earlier, taking less holidays, and delaying retirement. Personally, I enjoy working long and hard. I calculate that I work eight hours more per week than the average Finn, which is equivalent to almost two months more work per year. I do it because I love the feeling of exhausted accomplishment.

I’m not alone among Americans doing this, I suspect, but our efforts may be misplaced. Some studies have shown taking more time off increases productivity so that it more than offsets the missed time at work. The Norwegians are a good example: they work 20% less than Americans, but their productivity is 38% higher. They work less but produce more.

3. America isn’t the best at all things.

Americans tend to unconsciously view their country as the pinnacle of every conceivable thing. Anything with an American origin is better than the alternative. I unconsciously believed this, too, when I lived in America, but my eyes have been opened.

I had no idea what good seafood tasted like until I visited a little restaurant in Malta, and the waiter pointed out the window to the harbour to show me which boats had caught the different fish he had available. I had no conception of what good chocolate was until I visited Zurich. I shudder to admit this, but before I sat behind the wheel of a German car I thought Mustangs were excellent machines. Sometimes I tell this story at parties, and people laugh and slap me on my shoulder in commiseration at my naiveté.

I discovered America does not necessarily create the best food, the best products, the best ideas or social constructs. I do have a caveat to this, however. As I constantly tell people who ask me about the U.S., America is a very big place and you can find anything there. I am convinced that a person can find a restaurant in Manhattan that serves Italian food as good as anything you can get in Milan. But the average quality in the States is exceptionally poor compared to Europe. I suppose for most of America, quantity is more important than quality.

2. Realising the American Dream is disturbingly rare.

The American Dream states hard work will result in upward social mobility. This is beaten into every American’s head from birth, and they absolutely adore rags-to-riches stories. It doesn’t matter who you are, your skin colour, your gender, the wealth of your parents – if you work hard you will succeed. At some point, every single American child is told he or she can be President someday. This is meant literally as well as figuratively. If you don’t want to be President, but would rather be a CEO or scientist or own your own home, you can do it. Here’s what I learned: not only is this dream of upward mobility not unique to America, but America doesn’t do it particularly well.

The simple fact is other developed countries are much better at realising the American Dream than America. As a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago states: “the U.S. may be exceptional for its relative lack of mobility.” I think this is the most disturbing thing I’ve learned about America since I left it.

If you have poor parents in America, most likely you will remain poor, and so will your kids. In other developed nations, on the other hand, you have a much better chance of rising far higher than your parents.

If we look at studies of the intergenerational elasticity of income, we learn poor kids in Germany, Canada and Finland are much more likely than their American counterparts to have higher earnings than their parents. Poor kids in other countries have a better chance of becoming rich than poor Americans.

So why is this? Is it cheaper university education in other countries? A better social safety net? Fewer glass ceilings? I don’t know. But I think making America the Land of Opportunity in reality as it is in rhetoric should be a priority.

1. American optimism is a rare and wonderful thing.

America is a uniquely optimistic country. Even though it is relatively rare for a poor American to climb the social ladder (see point #2), it is almost universally believed to be possible. If you look at every presidential election in recent memory, the winner has not been the candidate with the best plan, or most experience. The winner has been the candidate who could best communicate a message of hope and optimism. I suspect the more intelligent Republican staffers knew the game was up when they caught sight of the Obama Hope poster. How could you compete against that? More Hope?

This national trait might be due to American history. It is a young country and, through much of its growth, was faced with a gigantic continent to expand into. It is no wonder it is a hopeful country. There were always better times right over the horizon.

The rest of the world does not share this optimism. Finland, in particular, might be America’s exact opposite. Finns are characterised by moroseness, cynicism, and pessimism. Even to share a smile with a stranger is so rare as to merit notice and discussion.

Americans have no idea how rare and wonderful this optimism is. It is a defining trait of the national character, and it is one of the things I miss most about America.

4 comments on “Ten things I learned about America by leaving it, part two
  1. Jari Välikorpi says:

    Interesting readings for a Finn who has lived in Indianapolis!

    Although I think this part:

    “Finns are characterised by moroseness, cynicism, and pessimism.”

    to me feels as if it was coming from a foreigner who was from a radically different cultural background and was giving their judgment on their first short visit to Finland. While I agree that Finns would have use for more positive and outgoing social interaction with people, I still think that categorical blanket statements of this kind lack severely in cultural “reading skills” and are patently short-sighted and simplifying and subjectively confined to the observer’s own cultural heritage.

    But other than that, thank you for the interesting articles =)

  2. David J. Cord says:

    Terve, Jari! Another Finn who has lived in Indy? I’m surprised at how many I’ve run into! Thanks for your comment. Yes, stereotypical statements are dangerous, I agree.

  3. Jari Välikorpi says:

    Yes! Butler University, fall semester 2008, and three comeback visits since then!

    And you are pardoned, I did exaggerate with my “analysis” of your exaggerated comment a little bit!

    Keep it up with your interesting writings, there aren’t many things more interesting to read than writings about Finland and/or the States by someone from Indiana! =)

  4. Borna says:

    I just read both parts and I really like how you’ve managed to walk the middle ground.
    So many of these types of articles are either all pro or all against, but you’ve managed to capture (very delicately) the right amount of both.
    I haven’t read the rest of your blog, but I think it will be a very interesting read.

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